Tag Archives: authoritarianism

Jason Chaffetz Wants to Use Facial Recognition to Track Immigrants

Hey, remember Congressman Jason Chaffetz, the guy who said poor people should stop buying so many dang iPhones if they want healthcare? Well, the dingus has done it again: During a congressional hearing about the government’s use of use of facial recognition technology on Wednesday, Chaffetz suggested using that same…

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I Study Authoritarian Despots, and Trump Is Borrowing a Lot of Their Tactics

The media is constantly "condemning and providing false information again, with some truths omitted, some issues exaggerated, and some news reported without scrutiny."

That's not a quote from Trump administration talking head Kellyanne Conway on FOX News. It's a statement given by General Prayuth Chan-ocha, the leader of Thailand's military junta, in September 2014. And yet, those words have been repeated daily—almost verbatim—by the new administration, from Conway, to White House press secretary Sean Spicer, and even from Donald Trump himself.

In the first ten days of his tumultuous and controversial presidency, Trump has borrowed five key aspects—willfully or not—from the playbook used by despots. His early strategies and style mimic authoritarian governance around the world—strategies I've seen firsthand in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and sub-Saharan Africa. This does not mean that Trump is a despot or will become one. But it does mean we should worry.

First, in order to roll back democratic checks, despots must blur the lines between truth and falsehood. This makes it difficult to ascertain who to trust in times of crisis. Throughout history, this graying of truth often starts on trivial matters, particularly on issues that surround the cult of personality associated with the leader. Trump did not disappoint; his administration's first press event as president was an aggressive and angry assertion of falsehoods related to his inaugural crowd size. Like many despots, Trump is unable to accept popular narratives that challenges his standing as the man of the people.

This blurring of the truth becomes dangerous when real crises break out. If China makes a claim about the South China Sea and Trump makes the opposite claim, how can Americans—or American allies—trust the White House? After all, if Trump's team lies about an easily disproved claim where citizens can simply look at side-by-side photos, what about statements that aren't easily verifiable with photographs?

And yet, in spite of these risks, despots thrive on this uncertainty. Blurring that line between fact and falsehood dilutes critiques and ensures that citizens question the nature of truth itself.

Second, but relatedly, Trump is doing what despots do best—attacking the media for accurate reporting. At CIA headquarters, Trump called the media "among the most dishonest human beings on earth." He tweeted that the media was the "opposition party." Kellyanne Conway has suggested that journalists who "talk smack" should be fired. And perhaps most famously, Trump has called CNN and the New York Times "fake news." With some different names, these developments read a lot like the early stages of a war on the media in Turkey, where President Erdogan has relentlessly attacked journalists. Trump is not yet going nearly as far as Erdogan, who jails journalists, but the preliminary logic is the same— an attempt to undermine the credibility of those who hold power to account.

Third, Trump has repeatedly cast aspersions on the integrity of American elections, falsely claiming that 3 million people voted illegally. Remarkably, this is a reversal of a tactic often used by despots. Typically, despots rig elections and lie to say they were clean. Trump won an election that was not rigged—at least not in terms of voter fraud or the electoral process itself—and then claimed it was rigged against him. However, there is a method to his madness. In Côte d'Ivoire, I saw the violent fallout from politicized claims that foreigners illegally voted in droves. That claim was used as a pretext to disenfranchise citizens, robbing the opposition of an electoral path to victory.

Trump's administration and the people surrounding it have already suggested that they will "strengthen" voting procedures, in a way that makes it more difficult for some people to vote (most likely minorities and poorer citizens who have a harder time complying with new rules like being required to produce photo ID at the polls). Furthermore, denigrating the electoral process is an important way for despots to downplay election results that hint at any semblance of unpopularity. Trump's claim that he would have won the popular vote without illegal voting reeks of this strategy. Without that long-term goal, his attempt to undermine public confidence in his own victory makes no sense.

Fourth, and perhaps most sinister, Trump is already politicizing national security and using the "rally around the flag" effect to erode rights. Over the weekend, Trump banned immigrants, refugees, and even legal residents from seven Muslim-majority countries. Nobody from these countries has committed a major terrorist attack on the United States in the past 15 years. Indeed, countries that have produced most of the terrorists that have attacked Americans in America are exempted from the ban. But Trump's rhetoric around this policy is aimed at suggesting that anyone who opposes him is unpatriotic and opposed to the goal of American security. This tactic is as old as despotism itself, and has been used recently from Turkey to the Philippines to Tunisia to roll back democratic rights and institute draconian measures aimed at consolidating power.

Trump is currently using this tactic to allegedly protect Americans from foreign threats. But it is fair to wonder what will happen if a terrorist attack occurs from within the United States on his watch: Will American Muslims be his next target?

Furthermore, Trump is also politicizing national security decision-making in an unprecedented fashion. Steve Bannon, the Breitbart media mogul who has become Trump's chief strategist, has been added to the National Security Council. Simultaneously, the director of National Intelligence and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—people with real military and national security expertise—have been downgraded and are now attending only when "issues pertaining to their responsibilities and expertise are to be discussed." Democracy is weakened when partisan politics is injected into national security advising.

Fifth, and finally, Trump is moving at such a rapid pace of change that normal citizens can't keep up. Policy changes are deliberately being obscured by a constant stream of tweets, executive orders, television interviews, press conferences, and outbursts. This deluge has a clear purpose, and one often used to autocrats: It forces the opposition to narrowly pick their battles. Already, Democrats wary at the threat of unqualified cabinet appointees have decided to only focus on a few choice picks to block. People like me, who care most about democratic institutions, become less concerned by major policy shifts because they seem minuscule and irrelevant by comparison to threats to democracy itself. Trump is a master of this strategy, often floating "trial balloons" of extreme policy ideas, only to walk them back and look like he's compromising. 

He combined the second and fifth strategies most recently, suggesting that he would move the White House press corps out of the White House only to capitulate—and claim credit for doing something that literally every modern president has taken as given.

To be clear, Trump is a democratically elected leader who is subject to democratic oversight and the rule of law. He is not a despot. But if American democracy were to slide toward authoritarianism, the first ten days of that process would look a lot like the ten days we just witnessed. It's time to remind ourselves that the Constitution and democratic institutions are not self-enforcing magical documents: They are only as strong as those who fight for them during times of distress.  

Dr. Brian Klaas is a fellow at the London School of Economics and the author of The Despot's Accomplice: How the West is Aiding and Abetting the Decline of Democracy.

Why Authoritarianism Refuses to Die

There's a fascist in every one of us. Yeah, you too. At least that's the thrust of an argument first made in the 1930s by an Austrian psychoanalyst who studied under Freud, developed theories on politics and sexuality that infuriated both communists and Nazis, and eventually came to the conclusion that you're more likely to warm up to the idea of fascism if you're sexually repressed. Wilhelm Reich, to put it mildly, pissed a lot of people off.

But before his theory linked fascism to stifled orgasms, Reich posited his idea on right-wing nationalism in his 1933 text "The Mass Psychology of Fascism." "My medical experience with individuals from all kinds of social strata, races, nationalities, and religions showed me that 'fascism' is only the politically organized expression of the average human character structure," he wrote, "a character structure which has nothing to do with this or that race, nation, or party but which is general and international. In this characterological sense, 'fascism' is the basic emotional attitude of man in authoritarian society." Meaning the way we defer to authorities—first our parents, then our teachers, then our bosses, and so on—bakes a potential predilection for fascism into every society.

Fast-forward to 2016. It's been a year when we've struggled to even verbalize the direction in which Western politics has drifted. Some call this wave of Anti-Establishment surprise election results and anti-immigrant sentiment a form of right-wing populism. Others, a pivot toward conservatism or perhaps nationalism. People first started using the word "fascist" to describe Donald Trump in 2015, before he was even made the Republican presidential nominee. We've ended up with a load of different ways to try to express a basic concept: There are lots of people worried about safety and security who want the firm hand of an authoritarian state to shield them from the perceived trauma of globalization, migration, and international terrorism.

Left-wing politics as we've come to know it—centered on the ideas of welfare, openness to other nation states, and accepting multiculturalism—has lost ground to a politics steeped in law and order with just a touch of protectionism. And as Reich observed in the 1930s, cash-strapped, overworked people who feel afraid can vote (some against their interests) to pick authoritarianism over liberalism.

But the question is: Why? Just what is it about, say, Brexit or Trump that psychologically appeals to millions? Voting emotionally isn't really understood, and we easily descend into damaging stereotyping—"'Little England' northerners voted to Leave" or "out-of-touch London elites voted Remain"—rather than proper analysis. But politics professor at Birkbeck University of London Eric Kaufmann quickly discovered a unifying thread running through the types of people more likely to want out of the EU. And it had nothing to do with class, wealth, or location.

"Culture and personality, not material circumstances, separate Leave and Remain voters," he wrote the day of the referendum result. "This is not a class conflict so much as a values divide that cuts across lines of age, income, education, and even party." And those values relate more to authoritarianism.

When looking at a 2015 British Election Study survey of 24,000 white Brits, the probability of someone voting Leave leapt to 73 percent if they were in favor of the death penalty. Similarly, if they responded to wanting to see people who commit sex crimes "publicly whipped, or worse," they were much more likely to want out of the EU. On the other hand, the probability of voting Leave hovered at about 14 percent for those who said they were opposed to the death penalty. Boiled down, those more likely to favor a tough-on-crime, conservative approach to punishment leaned toward wanting Brexit.

This not only explodes the idea that the white working class somehow voted as a monolithic bloc in favor of leaving the EU, but also hints at why times of economic and social upheaval push populations toward the right. "Right-wing authoritarianism is on a level of psychology almost," says Kaufmann, speaking over the phone. "In one population, you're not going to have one response—it's not like 'all whites' are going to say no to immigration. What you have is one group of whites, to put it crudely, interested in change and novelty and experience. They're quite accepting of change, or even embrace it. Another group sees the world as a dangerous place and wants to be protected from it—they embrace law and order."

Though Kaufmann noticed this in June, more data seemed to confirm it elsewhere. In November, YouGov data from from 12,000 people polled showed that authoritarian populist ideas—once consigned to the margins—were held by about half the population in eight out of 12 European countries. In Britain, this figure was at 48 percent, though 20 percent of those polled self-identified as "right-wing." Many still ascribed to an opposition to human rights (itself a deeply counterintuitive view, surely) and anti-immigration views backed by support for strong foreign policy. From Romania to the Netherlands to Poland, a particular value system appears to be on the rise.

Academics have tried to define it for years. In the 1980s, now-retired psychology professor Bob Altemeyer came up with his own extension of a 1940s right-wing authoritarian scale, which is exactly what it sounds like: a sort of ranking system to make sense of why people gravitate to the right. It encompasses traits like a submission to authority, aggression toward outsiders, and loving social norms or traditions. Though Kaufmann isn't a fan of the term "right-wing authoritarianism," he acknowledges its complexities.

"There are really two types: one, social dominance, who really believe in survival of the fittest; and two, those who are fearful and seek order and security and routine," he says. That bid for comfort feels magnified when life is hard—for example, during the Great Depression, before World War II, and in today's post-recession uncertainty.

"At the moment, people do not perceive their future as vivid or certain," says Dr. Simon Moss, associate professor in psychology at Charles Darwin University. "Because of this uncertainty, they tend to prioritize their immediate needs over their future goals." In turn, that leads to a heightened response to perceived threats. "When people bias their attention to information that aligns with their preferences and preconceptions," Moss continues, "they tend to perceive their own group as superior and other groups as inferior. That is, they want to feel better rather than seek accurate information. Consequently, prejudices are rife. They gravitate to leaders that reinforce these prejudices. Brexit and Trump follow."

Academic Matthew MacWilliams pointed this out as early as January, in relation to Trump. Again, authoritarianism looks to be the unifying factor among the president-elect's supporters. "Authoritarians obey," MacWilliams wrote. "They rally to and follow strong leaders. And they respond aggressively to outsiders, especially when they feel threatened. From pledging to 'make America great again' to building a wall on the border to promising to close mosques and ban Muslims from visiting the United States, Trump is playing directly to authoritarian inclinations."

And that's where the appeal lies. A strongman becomes both a comfort blanket and a stern, trusted figurehead. They're the ones who can help people "take back control of their borders" or make their country great again. And if there's apparently a little fascist inside each of us, that may be just what they want to hear.

Lead photo: Eva Braun / NARA via

Follow Tshepo Mokoena on Twitter.

12 Futuristic Forms of Government That Could One Day Rule the World

As history has repeatedly shown, political systems come and go. Given our rapid technological and social advances, it's a trend we can expect to continue. Here are 12 extraordinary — and even frightening — ways our governments could be run in the future.

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